Born in Mississippi, Willie Kent came to Chicago in the early 50s as part of the great postwar migration that revitalized the city's blues scene. Though at first he was mentored on guitar by Willie Hudson, he switched to bass in 1959 and was soon jobbing around town with the likes of Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Dawkins. He eventually formed his own band, Sugar Bear & the Bee Hives, and for several years in the 70s held down weekends at Ma Bea's on West Madison. Now 65, he's as energetic and propulsive a player as ever, augmenting his primary stock-in-trade--shuffle-driven 12-bar boilerplate--with funk, rock, and soul blues. On Kent's newest disc, Comin' Alive! (Blue Chicago), he sounds overjoyed to be stretching out in these relatively new idioms: he handles stripped-down blues funk with the same unerring aplomb he brings to traditional postwar material, and as a singer he's learned to temper his leathery, declamatory bark with soulful tenderness. On the Ray Charles standard "I Can't Stop Loving You" he coaxes a smooth, expressive croon from his sinewy pipes, backed by Allen Batts's churchy organ and countrified ululations from guitarist Jake Dawson. Kent digs down closer to his roots on the autobiographical "Born in the Delta," a deft fusion of Chicago aggression and cotton-patch weariness; the album's closer, "Someone You Should Know," is the only time he's ever gone on record singing about Jesus--and his performance is heartfelt and inspiring, not preachy. A fair number of blues artists remain vital performers until an advanced stage in their careers, but Kent is among a true minority that never stops exploring and developing new musical directions. Dawson will be on hand for this Rosa's show--he's a member of Kent's regular band, the Gents. Friday, November 16, 9:30 PM, Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452. Monday, November 19, 9:30 PM, B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted; 773-528-1012 (with vocalist Bonnie Lee). Kent also plays Wednesdays at 9 PM at Blue Chicago on Clark (536 N. Clark, 312-661-0100) and Thursdays, except Thanksgiving, at 9 PM at Blue Chicago (736 N. Clark, 312-642-6261); both gigs are with vocalist Patricia Scott.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.